The moment, in 2016, when I saw a picture of the Nobel Prize committee chairperson, I had an idea of why Bob Dylan had been chosen for the Literature award. I imagined her as she would have been in college after hearing Just Like a Woman for the first time, and feeling as if Bob Dylan wrote it and sings it for her, alone.
More than once have I taken a date to a Bob Dylan concert, and each time I felt that if he had beckoned her, from the stage, or afterwards from the bus, I’d have gone home alone. And I like to think I’d be okay with that – because there is a woman (or two) with the same gravitational pull on me!
Decades earlier, market forces had hurled the western canon into the furnace of popularity, then pulled the remnant into an infinite thread of creative writing, which made the committee confident there’d be minimal blowback for overlooking the short list of poets and novelists with Nobel-level chops. So, they laid the prize on the song and dance man!
Springsteen 20 – Dylan 10
OR – maybe this is a case of noble Nobellians balancing the folly of the recording industry, which is in charge of pop culture’s royal family, where Beyoncé is head of household. There, you’ll glance past dozens of names before reaching Bob Dylan, whose 10 prizes are half as many as Bruce Springsteen’s, the guy once known as “the next Bob Dylan.”
As luck would have it, when Dylan’s award was announced, Donald Hall (1928-2018), former poet laureate of the United States, was my friend and correspondent. We had been discussing the importance of music to his work when I asked what he thought about Bob Dylan getting the Nobel for Literature.
“Curiously, when I read Bob Dylan on the page the words make no sound! Poetry sound is utterly different from music. When he sings them, I reckon that they make a good noise! They are song literature but on the page they have no sex at all. Compare Thomas Hardy and “During Wind and Rain.” Hardy has four stanzas, each of them tells us that people have fun together as families but then they get old and die. Four times. And it is fairly erotic. Oral sex. Phil Roth should have won the Nobel, and now he never will.”
Prizes, such as the one connected to the dynamite fortune, say as much about the grantor as they do about the lucky winner. Saudi Arabia suddenly gives rich prizes to golfers, just to get people off their back for dismembering journalists.
In 1958, the literature Nobel was given to Boris “Dr. Zhivago” Pasternak – even though the Russian author, already on Stalin’s shitlist, wanted no part of the prize and all the noise it would make. But, since the brand new C.I.A. was eager to rub Uncle Joe’s nose in it, Pasternak was awarded the prize – and suffered for it the rest of his life.
You know who would’ve been a dyn-o-mite recipient of the 1958 Nobel in Literature? The man who wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists,” whose praise Bob Dylan sings on his first record album.